Hatha Yoga

Hatha yoga is a term that is used to describe specific yoga postures.— It also refers to a broad philosophical branch of yoga. Iyengar, Ashtanga Vinyasa, and hot yoga are just a few of the many styles that are based on hatha yoga. Let’s take a deeper look at practice.

What Hatha yoga means

Hatha means “force” in Sanskrit — alluding to the effort required to perform its postures. In its broadest, simplest definition hatha refers to any physical yoga practice. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a system of physical exercises for the control and perfection of the body”. An alternative interpretation of the Sanskrit word is sun (Ha) and moon (Tha), thought to be a reference to the importance of balance and harmony.


Hatha’s origin and history

Yoga has been around for thousands of years, but our modern concept of yoga is much younger. In ‘Yoga, Brief History of an Idea’ David Gordon White writes that contemporary yoga is less than 200 years old. However, the core practice of modern yoga is hatha, which has its origins in the 10th century. Yogic texts such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali focus on meditation and spirituality. Hatha brings the spiritual into the physical, combining movement with breath control. It focuses on elevating the physical body through postures and breathing.

Traditional and modern hatha yoga combine several elements. The best known are fixed postures (Asanas) combined with breathing (Pranayama). Hatha yoga also teaches about body locks (Bandhas). There are three: the root lock (Mula Bandha); diaphragm lock (Uddiyana Bandha); and the chin lock (Jalandhara Bandha). Mastering these three locks is a way to improve circulation and strengthen and rejuvinate the internal organs.

Eight limbs of yoga

To understand hatha, you have to understand the “eight limbs” that are described in the Yoga Sutras. They encompass the whole path of yoga: moral, physical, mental and spiritual. The first four focus on how yoga teaches us to relate to those around us; the second four how we deepen our own yoga practice.

The eight limbs are:
1. Moral restraint (Yama)
2. Observance (Niyama)
3. Posture (Asana)
4. Breath control (Pranayama)
5. Sensory withdrawal (Pratyahara)
6. Concentration (Dharana)
7. Meditation (Dhyana)
8. Enlightenment (Samadhi)

Western yoga practice often focuses on just posture and breath, and sometimes meditation. The eight limbs remind us that yoga can and should permeate every part of our life: how we interact with the world and each other, our attitude and behaviour.

Key Postures

Different sub-varieties of yoga emphasize specific asanas, but there are a number of hatha poses that are used across practices. Familiar poses like Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), Cobra (Bhujangasana), and Camel (Ustrasana) crop up in a wide range of classes. Looking at hatha yoga as a whole, it encompasses four main types of postures. Strength poses like Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), Triangle (Trikonasana) and Chair (Utkatasana) work multiple muscle groups, or target large muscles. They are physically demanding and raise your heart rate, which has cardiovascular benefits. Balancing postures like Standing Big Toe (Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana) and Half Moon Pose (Ardha Candrasana) work to bring balance and symmetry to the body. They also develop strength by activating small muscle groups to aid your balance. Inversions such as headstands and handstands stimulate the circulation and internal organs, and improve balance, strength and coordination. Relaxation postures like Child’s (Balasana) and Corpse pose (Savasana) bring the body into a state of calmness for meditation.

hatha yoga poses


Hatha yoga’s emphasis on physical movement has proven health benefits. Its combination of strengthening, stretching and relaxation can be equally or even more effective than standard Western medicine. Medical studies showed, for example, that practicing yoga for one hour a day was as effective as drug therapy for controlling high blood pressure in patients with hypertension. Hatha yoga is especially beneficial for chronic lower back pain. One study found that people with chronic back pain who did Iyengar yoga improved movement and flexibility, and reduced pain and depression.
Numerous studies testify to the mental benefits of hatha yoga. A University of Pennsylvania study compared hatha to seated meditation and found that people who did yoga had greater improvements in mood. A study comparing the mental benefits of yoga to swimming, body conditioning, and fencing found that the yoga practitioners “were significantly less anxious, tense, depressed, angry, fatigued, and confused”.

Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) Photo by Akire Aicrag
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana).
Photo by Akire Aicrag (Tonchigüe, Ecuador, 2012)

Why do hatha yoga?

Hatha yoga can transform your mind, body, spirit and relationships, if you let it.practitioners Whatever type of yoga you already practice has its roots in hatha. Reading the Yoga Sutras and the classic text of hatha, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika — will guide you deeper into the practice. As you learn the eight limbs, and the relationship between the postures, breath and locks, you discover the possibility of changing the way you move, feel, look and think. With hatha, you are always discovering.

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